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Government, Politics & Issues

Insurgency Vs. Staying Power: Bush-Clay Rematch Latest Bout In National Democratic Conflict

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and Cori Bush are the two main candidates in the Democratic primary for Missouri's 1st Congressional District.
File Photos / Evie Hemphill
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and Cori Bush are the two main candidates in the Democratic primary for Missouri's 1st Congressional District.

The Clay family’s staying power in St. Louis politics is unmatched.

For more than 50 years, Lacy Clay and his father, Bill, have represented Missouri’s 1st Congressional District — creating one of the strongest political organizations in the state’s modern history and one that’s withstood a number of tough challenges.

“We still have a lot of work to do in this community,” said Lacy Clay of University City. “And it's about changing the economy and changing the dynamic for African Americans. And that's what my work has been about.”

Cori Bush is hoping to be the candidate who finally beats Clay. With more money and more notoriety at her disposal than when she ran against Clay in 2018, Bush wants to ride a wave of progressive candidates to Washington.

Bush is questioning the conventional wisdom that seniority in Congress trickles down to St. Louis and St. Louis County residents who live in the 1st District.

“No more of the mediocre politics in our region,” Bush said. “People who are marginalized, people who are disadvantaged, under-resourced, and just St. Louis as a whole our population should be going up, not down.”

Back for another round

Cori Bush has been a well-known demonstrator for police accountability since protests broke out over the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014. This photo is from a demonstration in 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo
Cori Bush has been a well-known demonstrator for police accountability since protests broke out over the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014. This photo is from a demonstration in 2018.

When Bush walked into her spacious campaign office in a nondescript strip mall in Northwoods earlier this month, she was greeted warmly by several campaign staffers. Part of the reception was personal: It was Bush’s 44th birthday. But it could be a sign of the enthusiasm that Bush has inspired over the past few years.

“A lot more people know my name now,” Bush said. “They know me from politics versus just activism.”

Bush first became known in activist circles as a demonstrator after Michael Brown was killed in 2014. She then emerged on the political scene in 2016 as a key supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. Bush, who appeared as a warmup speaker when Sanders swung through St. Louis earlier this year, has made implementing some of the Vermont senator’s agenda a key aspect of her policy platform.

“Right now we're over incarcerating and under educating,” Bush said. “I’m definitely supporting and trying to get more power behind Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Because we need that in our communities.”

This is Bush’s third bid for public office. She ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016, losing to eventual Democratic nominee Jason Kander. And she lost to Clay in 2018 by about 20 percentage points.

Bush points to a number of variables that she believes makes her 2020 campaign more viable. For one thing, she was featured in the film "Knock Down the House," a Netflix documentary that highlighted campaigns of progressive Democrats challenging members of Congress. One of the key figures in that film is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York lawmaker who has amassed a national profile and endorsed Bush in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez, who serves on two House committees with Clay, has not yet made an endorsement in this year’s race.

Another big difference is how Bush has been a visible participant in protests that decried police killing Black people.

“This is the type of leadership that we want, the type of leadership that will be bold for us,” Bush said. “The type of leadership that will get maced and beaten. But then they will also take it a step further.”

Clay touts his record

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay speaks at the Shelley House dedication ceremony in May 2019. Clay has been in elected office since 1983, making him one of the longest-serving elected officials in Missouri.
Shahla Farzan
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay speaks at the Shelley House dedication ceremony in May 2019. Clay has been in elected office since 1983, making him one of the longest-serving elected officials in Missouri.

On a recent blistering hot Saturday in Pagedale, Clay lamented the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis — a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader who had served with both his father and him.

“I consider his life to be a success, because he saw so much change in his 80 years on this earth,” Clay said.

Clay noted that his father became friends with Lewis while both were advocating for civil rights in the 1960s. It was the type of activism that catapulted Bill Clay into Congress, making him the first Black congressman from Missouri.

But Lacy Clay also developed his own political legacy. He’s held either state or federal office since 1983 — and has taken on key roles on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Oversight Committee since his party took over control of the House.

While Bush is trying to run at him from his left flank, Clay notes he’s consistently voted for progressive issues — including embracing the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and impeaching President Donald Trump.

“I'm one of the more progressive members of Congress since my first day — I'll put my record up against anyone who calls himself a progressive,” Clay said. “I mean, that's why I have the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”

Clay believes his status as Missouri’s senior member of Congress has paid dividends, whether it be helping bring the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to north St. Louis or through his work as the chairman of a House Financial Services subcommittee overseeing housing, community development and insurance. He’s also been an outspoken proponent of overhauling policing practices.

“We have to begin to change the culture of policing in this country, and it has to start at the academy by, in this instance, recruiting all new classes that will be more than 50% African American,” Clay said. “You do that because the Black community is tired of having racist cops come from racist communities patrolling their neighborhoods. They need to be able to identify with people that look like them that understand them and their communities.”

Big money, big personalities and big conflict

Both candidates contend they would be better at following up demands for police accountability with action on the federal level.
File Photo / Ryan Delaney
Both candidates contend they would be better at following up demands for police accountability with action on the federal level.

National observers have taken notice of the 1st Congressional District contest after Bush outraised Clay during the fundraising quarter that spanned April through June.

While Clay still has more money in the bank, the cash infusion allowed her to buy television ads — and send out mailers and put out signs throughout the district.

Fight Corporate Monopolies, a politically active nonprofit group that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, has spent several hundred thousand dollars on television ads attacking Clay for some of his votes on the Financial Services Committee.

“Last time, a lot of people left the polls saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I thought you were a white man,’” Bush said. “Because they didn't see my face on our billboards. So now we have that, but that takes a lot more money.”

Bush is once again taking issue with Clay’s decision to accept money from political action committees. Clay said he’s proud to receive support from local companies like Boeing and Express Scripts — especially since 1st District constituents contribute to those groups.

Among other things, Clay also criticized how Bush is using some of the campaign donations to take a candidate salary, a practice that the FEC legalized nearly two decades ago under certain circumstances.

Bush said she had to give up full-time work to run for office, adding she has “been fully compliant with FEC guidelines and transparent with my team, my supporters, and my community in every aspect of my campaign.”

Clay is touting endorsements from some high-level Democratic figures, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris. Clay was an early endorser of Harris’ unsuccessful presidential campaign.

“Whether it’s police reform, providing health care for all, or fighting the Republican assault to suppress your voting rights, Lacy Clay is a champion for the people with real backbone,” said Harris, who is considered one of Joe Biden potential running mates.

Bush is receiving endorsements from people like Sanders — and soon-to-be Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York. Bowman recently unseated Elliot Engel, which was considered another example of Sanders-backed congressional candidates defeating long-term incumbents.

“We took on entrenched power and wealthy interests in New York and won — and on Aug. 4, Cori Bush is going to do the same thing in St. Louis,” Bowman said.

The fundamentals

The candidates agree that the race will come down to whether Black voters want to stick with Clay — or desire a new representative.

While Bush prevailed in a number of either majority white or integrated areas of the 1st District in 2018, Clay dominated in a number of Black city wards and county townships. When he ran for president in the Democratic primary earlier this year, Biden swamped Sanders in largely Black parts of the 1st District — one of the reasons why the former vice president won such a dominating victory in Missouri.

“There’s no candidate in this race who can point to any accomplishments they’ve made for the Black community but me,” Clay said.

Bush said: When our team has personally knocked on doors, people are saying, ‘We're tired of the same old thing, which is not much.’”

The Democratic primary also includes Katherine Bruckner, who hasn’t raised any money and is much less known than Clay or Bush.

The winner of the Aug. 4 primary will take on the victor of the GOP primary between Winnie Heartstrong and Anthony Rogers. Since the 1st District is heavily Democratic, whoever wins the Clay-Bush rematch will almost certainly head to Washington in 2021.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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